Zimbabwe fails its democracy test

2023-09-04

Zimbabwe has again failed to hold free, fair and credible elections. The country remains locked in a trajectory of disputed polls that will compound challenges for economic recovery. The elections again exposed widespread irregularities and a blatant disregard for the law and international voting standards.

Making no mention of the multiple aberrations identified by observer missions, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) declared incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party the winner with 52.6%. Nelson Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) got 44% of the vote.

Disaggregated results aren’t available, and ZEC claims it isn’t obliged to make them public despite this being international best practice. ZANU-PF fell short of a two-thirds parliamentary majority but retained a comfortable majority with 136 seats. The CCC increased Parliament’s opposition seats to 73.

The ZEC announced the election results in record time, possibly to frustrate efforts to independently verify the count. The CCC rejected the outcome but withdrew its planned Constitutional Court challenge because ‘Zimbabwe’s courts were captured by Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF’, the party said. The playbook of bias in Zimbabwe’s courts, as seen in 2018 and in numerous election-related cases brought by the CCC, means that a court challenge would only legitimise Mnangagwa’s victory.

So, in a move reminiscent of the 2008 Robert Mugabe rushed inauguration after a discredited election, Mnangagwa is set to be inaugurated today.

The SADC mission’s mention of structural and systemic challenges reflects a break from the past

Even the historically cautious Southern African Development Community (SADC) Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) couldn’t ignore the flouting of regulations and SADC principles. Its preliminary report found that the ‘rural vote may be compromised by alleged intimidation attributed to a group called Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), which is said to be a quasi-security intelligence organisation.’

It noted that ‘the Patriot Act is incompatible with the spirit of section 61(1) of the Constitution, and paragraph 4.1.2 of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which requires Member States to uphold, amongst others, the freedom of expression.’ In response, ZANU-PF and the government have mounted a sustained campaign to shut down the SEOM’s criticism. The African Union’s (AU) report also profiles widespread concerns but doesn’t pronounce on them as SADC does.

At the start of vote counting, the government halted independent observation by local civil society organisations (CSOs) when police raided the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and Election Resource Centre data centres, arrested staff and accredited local observers, and confiscated laptops and cellphones. The government says it had intelligence that some organisations intended to illegally announce results based on the CSOs’ parallel vote tabulation.

These actions shut down the Zimbabwe Election Support Network’s established independent Parallel Voter Tabulation process. Ironically, in the 2018 elections, both ZEC and the government used the parallel tabulations to corroborate the results.

Key election observer missions adjudged the polls as falling short of minimum standards. The SEOM’s unprecedented report was scathing, identifying a raft of procedural and process deficits at odds with the Zimbabwean constitution, Electoral Act and SADC’s Principles and Guidelines for Democratic Elections.

The ruling party’s hysterical reaction suggests it deemed the SADC findings serious and damaging

The SADC mission noted ZEC’s lack of readiness, even though the commission had declared it was fully prepared. The mission found a lack of transparency around the voters’ roll, the contentious delimitation report, skewed access to state media, voter intimidation and deeper structural concerns including the conflation of party and state interests, the manipulation of the judiciary and problematic legislation.

Most of these issues have been recurring items in SADC reports on Zimbabwe’s elections in the past two decades. However, the mention of structural and systemic challenges reflects a break from the past, exposing various concerns that opposition and civil society have repeatedly raised.

ZANU-PF and the government pushed back, attacking the SEOM report and its team leader, Zambian politician Dr Nevers Mumba. Other observer missions received the same treatment, including a personal attack on the European Union observer mission head. The ruling party’s hysterical reaction suggests it deemed the SADC mission’s findings serious and damaging.

So, what happens now? What consequences will the observer missions have, and how will the African Development Bank (AfDB)-led debt arrears negotiations resolution process be affected?

It remains to be seen who will buckle first, although ZANU-PF is unlikely to concede any ground. It can rely on SADC’s collective management style grounded in comradeship and the primacy of stability rather than confrontation or action. ZANU-PF is also the past master of diplomatic manoeuvre in the region, as the SADC tribunal case showed. Nevertheless, the country faces a political dilemma, and getting that genie back in the bottle won't be easy.

SADC is unlikely to muster the political consensus and willpower to put Zimbabwe back on the bloc’s agenda. Not all member states will be comfortable with SEOM’s findings, which could set an unwelcome precedent that represents a departure from its previous approach.

The regional and international communities will likely seek a conciliatory middle-of-the-road approach

Meanwhile, several SADC leaders, including the presidents of South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and Botswana, have congratulated Mnangagwa. So, while SADC probably won’t backtrack on its SEOM report, it will park the concerns rather than elevate them to a rejection of the election result.

The SADC Panel of Elders’ visit to Zimbabwe is unlikely to change this scenario. The initiative has been shrouded in confusion, with no clarity on its goals and mandate, or if SADC might retain a formal brief on Zimbabwe.

The EU mission and Carter Center reports largely resonate with the SEOM report. But given the current AfDB-led debt resolution process, the international community and the AU are unlikely to escalate the election issue further. Comments by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, who is in Zimbabwe on an AfDB mandate, are important. Chissano indirectly endorsed a ZANU-PF victory, and seemingly referred to the governance pillar of the AfBD process when he said the next administration must tackle electoral reform.

The regional and international communities will likely seek a conciliatory middle-of-the-road approach under the guise of constructive engagement. Creditors seek the Zimbabwean government’s commitment to stay engaged in the AfDB process, with its three pillars of governance, economic reforms and land reform.

Geopolitical imperatives and sheer fatigue with the Zimbabwean issue among Western creditors will shape their debt resolution efforts. They will have to live with the unsettling reality that the Mnangagwa administration is not a partner you can do business with and expect to act in good faith.

ISS Pretoria

Image: © Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

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